Welcome back to our Playoff Preview series, an analytical look at the offence, defence and special teams matchups in each CFL postseason game. Let’s start with Sunday’s first game, the East Final, where the 10-8 crossover Edmonton Eskimos are facing the 8-9-1 Ottawa Redblacks in a rematch of last year’s Grey Cup. The game will air at 1 p.m. Eastern from Ottawa on TSN and ESPN3 (it will be tape-delayed to on BT Sports), and can be streamed on TSN Go and WatchESPN or through a subscription to YareSports in 150 other countries outside CFL broadcast territories. Here’s a look at the matchups.
Edmonton offence: Four injured quarterbacks: The Eskimos’ offence has been dominant this year, placing first in the CFL in yards of offence per game (418.7), first downs (448) and completion percentage (71.0), and second in the league in points per game (30.5), touchdowns (57), rushing yards per game (103.7) and passing yards per game (329.0). However, there are concerns for them this week, specifically when it comes to the health of quarterback Mike Reilly.
Reilly was phenomenal this season, finishing with 5,554 passing yards (first in the league), 28 passing touchdowns (second) and 408 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns, but he was held to just 10 completions on 19 attempts (52.6 per cent) for 133 yards in last week’s win over Hamilton, and exited in the fourth quarter with an “upper-body injury.” That injury is reportedly to his non-throwing arm, and it sounds like he’s still going to start; he threw well in practice Wednesday. However, as Dan Barnes notes in that last link, Reilly didn’t run in practice. His mobility is often a key asset for him, and we’ve seen before that trying to have him play without running is a bad idea. Moreover, a big question will be how Reilly reacts to the first couple of hits he takes. If his injury gets aggravated further, it could be an early exit for him.
The Eskimos aren’t necessarily doomed even if Reilly leaves, as backup James Franklin has shown solid potential and has plenty of weapons. Receivers Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker were first and second in the CFL in receiving yards this year with 1,761 and 1,589 respectively. Running back John White has been dominant as well; he rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries (8.0 yards per carry) last week, and collected 886 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns with a 5.4 yards per carry average this season, plus added 58 catches for 464 yards and another touchdown. Edmonton certainly has the potential to be one of the best offences in this league, and if they can rely on the ground game, that will help. There are questions about if their passing attack will be up to its usual standards, though, and about who will be running it.
Edmonton defence: Three wrong calls: The Eskimos’ defence had an excellent game overall last week against Hamilton, holding the Ticats to 21 points and coming up with a crucial late interception from Kenny Ladler that paved the way for Sean Whyte’s game-winning field goal. However, that performance does come with some caveats. The Ladler play came with the score tied at 21, and it came with Hamilton facing second and 14 from their own 10 after the Ticats’ Brandon Revenberg was called for holding and Edmonton’s Odell Willis wasn’t called for a late hit. CFL vice-president (football) Glen Johnson has since said that both of those calls “do not meet the standard” set by the league. If they had been called correctly, the Ticats would have had a first down from their own 51 instead. A turnover and a pick might have still happened in that situation, but we’ll never know.
Overall, the Eskimos’ defence has been pretty average this season, ranking fifth in points allowed (27.6 per game), sixth in yards allowed (375.3 per game), and sixth in yards allowed per play (6.7) and first downs conceded (391). They did improve in the final six games of the season, going 5-1 and allowing 24 points a game. They appear to be adapting to the system preferred by new defensive coordinator Mike Benevides, and they have plenty of talent. If they can come up with another good performance, that may help diminish the offensive worries.
Edmonton special teams: Four top kickers: Whyte went three-for-three last week, not easy in the windy conditions in Hamilton, and he booted that game-winning field goal. On the year, he had 45 made field goals on 48 attempts, a 93.8 per cent success rate that topped anyone with five or more attempts. Grant Shaw was solid in the punting game against the Ticats, too, averaging 48.2 raw yards per punt (boosted by a wind-aided 80-yard punt) and 36.0 net yards per punt (impressive against a team with a returner like Brandon Banks). However, the return game was an area of concern, and those concerns haven’t really been allayed; Brandon Zylstra averaged 8.0 yards returning punts, while Shakir Bell averaged just 8.3 per kick return (he did have a nice 42-yard missed field goal return, though).
Ottawa offence: Four reigning MOPs: 2015 CFL Most Outstanding Player Henry Burris has had an up-and-down season, including injury, benching and wars with critics, but he regained the starting job down the stretch and was impressive in the Redblacks’ final few games, averaging 383 passing yards per game after getting the starting job back. Ottawa certainly has plenty of weapons for him to throw to, as they had four 1,000-yard receivers (the same four as last year) this year, and all except the injured Chris Williams will be available in this game. Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson helped Ottawa lead the league with 343.9 passing yards per game (and place second with 414.8 offensive yards per game) this season despite the revolving door at quarterback.
That revolving door is a problem many other teams would love to have, as current backup Trevor Harris had an outstanding season and was even named a divisional all-star. He posted 3,301 passing yards in just 12 games with a 73.3 per cent completion rate and 16 touchdowns against four interceptions. If Burris falters, the Redblacks have a good option in Harris. However, there are a few concerns about if fear of a quick trigger might impact Burris’ play.
The other question for the Ottawa offence is how good their rushing game will be. Mossis Madu is talented and has averaged 15.3 carries per game since becoming the starter on Sept. 29, posting 65-plus rushing yards in five of those six games. On the year, the Redblacks’ 93.9 rushing yards also aren’t bad, putting them fourth in the league. They averaged a league-low 4.8 yards gained per rush, though. Madu was better than that, averaging 5.3 yards on his 92 carries (and picking up 490 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns), but there are still questions about how consistently Ottawa can run the ball.
Ottawa defence: Three burned defensive backs: The Redblacks’ defence was pretty middle-of-the-pack overall, but it had some highlights and lowlights in specific categories. They did okay in overall yards allowed (371.2 per game, fourth) and yards allowed per rush (4.8, third), but less so in points (27.7, sixth) and first downs (394, seventh) allowed. Their biggest weakness was defending the pass; the 311.7 passing yards they gave up were eighth in the league. Ottawa was actually okay on a per-pass basis (8.3 yards per, third), but all those shorter passes added up against them. However, they were decent at interceptions, coming up with 16 (third in the league). They were middle of the pack in sacks (42, fifth), which isn’t bad considering that they lost their top defensive ends from last year (Shawn Lemon and Justin Capicciotti) to offseason free agency, and if they can put some pressure on Reilly, that may help out the defensive backs.
Ottawa special teams: Three returner questions: Redblacks’ kicker Chris Milo was pretty good this year, hitting 47 (third in the league) on 58 attempts (81.0 per cent), including three from 50 yards or more. His punting was weaker, though; he averaged just 41.7 yards per punt. In the return game, Tristan Jackson was decent, but not outstanding, averaging 11.7 yards per punt return with one touchdown and 21.3 yards per kick return. He’s also coming back from an ankle injury.
X-factor: The health of Reilly: There aren’t many answers to just how Reilly is doing at this point, and while we know he’ll play, we don’t know how well he’ll do and if he’ll be able to stay in there for the whole game. If Reilly can stay healthy and throw for more yards than Burris, that seems likely to set up an Edmonton win, and the Eskimos might pull it out even without that if they get strong performances from Franklin and/or White. Struggles and/or an early exit from Reilly might set up an Ottawa win, though.
Prediction: Edmonton 27, Ottawa 24.